David Christian, a trained historian, is one of the leading proponents of the relatively new concept of Big History, which I view as a sea-change in the way humans will begin to view not only the world but our place in it and what we might expect to come in the future. His work presents a truly monumental and profound thesis and a drastically new framework for where humankind fits into the universe. Of the broad variety of works I’ve read in the past several decades, it is simply one of the most interesting and cohesive theses I’ve come across, and I highly and unreservedly recommend it to everyone I know. I’d put it on par or above works like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimistamong others for its broad impact on how I now view the world. For scientists and researchers it has the potential to be the philosophical equivalent of The Bible and in fact, like many religious texts, it is in effect a modern day “creation myth,” albeit one with a scientific underpinning.
Christian’s work was initially brought to my attention by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeffrey R. Young in which he mentioned that Bill Gates was a big fan of Christian’s work and had recommended it himself at a TED conference. (Gates is now also a financial supporter of Christian’s Big History Project.) I myself was aware of the Learning Company’s generally excellent coursework offerings and within a few weeks got an audio copy of the course of forty-eight lectures to listen to on my daily commute.
I’ve now devoured both his rather large text on the subject as well as a lecture series he created for a course on the subject. Below are brief reviews of the two works.The magnum written opus Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is an interesting change of reference from a historical perspective combining the disciplines of physics, cosmology, astronomy, geology, chemistry, microbiology, evolutionary theory, archaeology, politics, religion, economics, sociology, and history into one big area of contiguous study based upon much larger timescales than those traditionally taken in the study of historical time periods. Though it takes pieces from many disciplines, it provides for an interesting, fresh, and much needed perspective on who humans are and their place in not only the world, but the entire universe.
By looking at history from a much broader viewpoint (billions of years versus the more common decades or even just a few centuries) one comes away with a drastically different perspective on the universe and life.
I’d highly recommend this to any general reader as early as they can find time to read through it, particularly because it provides such an excellent base for a variety of disciplines thereby better framing their future studies. I wish I had been able to read this book in the ninth or tenth grade or certainly at the latest by my freshman year in college – alas the general conception of the topic itself didn’t exist until after I had graduated from university.
Although I have significant backgrounds in most, if not all, of the disciplines which comprise the tapestry of big history, the background included in the book is more than adequate to give the general reader the requisite introductions to these subjects to make big history a coherent subject on its own.
This could be an extremely fundamental and life-changing book for common summer reading programs of incoming college freshman. If I could, I would make it required reading for all students at the high school level. Fortunately Bill Gates and others are helping to fund David Christian’s work to help introduce it more broadly at the high school and other educational levels.
Within David Christian’s opus, there is also a collection of audio lectures produced by The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series which I listened to as well. The collection of forty-eight lectures is entitled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity (Great Courses, Course No. 8050). It provides a much quicker philosophical overview of the subject and doesn’t delve as deeply into the individual disciplines as the text does, but still provides a very cohesive presentation of the overall thesis. In fact, for me, the introduction to the topic was much better in these audio lectures than it was in the written book. Christian’s lecture style is fantastic and even better than his already excellent writing style.
In the audio lectures Christian highlights eight major thresholds which he uses as a framework by which to view the 13.4 billion years of history which the Universe has presently traversed. Then within those he uses the conceptualization of disparities in power/energy as the major driving forces/factors in history in a unique and enlightening way which provides a wealth of perspective on almost every topic (scientific or historical) one can consider. This allows one to see parallels and connections between seemingly disparate topics like the creations of stars and the first building of cities or how the big bang is similar to the invention of agriculture.
I can easily say that David Christian’s works on big history are some of the most influential works I’ve ever come across – and having experienced them, I can never see our universe in the same naive way again.
For those interested in taking a short and immediate look at Christian’s work, I can recommend his Ted Talk “The History of Our World in 18 Minutes” which only begins to scratch the surface of his much deeper and profound thesis: [ted id=1118]
Given how profound the topic of big history is, I’m sure I’ll be writing about and referring to it often. Posts in relation to it can be found here with the tag: “big history“.
In Big History and the Future of Humanity, Fred Spier has built on an earlier work of his and on the work of Eric Chaisson to produce what is currently by far the most sophisticated attempt to construct a thematic scaffolding for big history. He carefully links the idea of increasing complexity with the associated themes of energy flows and the idea of goldilocks conditions—the notion that complexity can increase only under very special conditions and within quite exacting “boundary conditions.” Here are broad theoretical ideas that can help give greater depth and coherence to the story told within big history.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 443
big history promises to open up exciting new research agendas (including the meaning of complexity and energy flows, and the role of information across many disciplines),
Highlight (yellow) – Location 483
Introduction: A Modern Creation Myth?
sociologist Émile Durkheim referred to as “anomie”: the sense of not fitting in,
Highlight (yellow) – Location 550
Russian matryoshka doll
Highlight (orange) – Location 651
Accounts of the past that focus primarily on the divisions between nations, religions, and cultures are beginning to look parochial and anachronistic—even dangerous.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 702
Highlight (orange) – Location 753
Chaisson, Eric J. Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Highlight (green) – Location 795
Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution. London: Allen and Unwin, 1987.
Highlight (green) – Location 844
Maynard Smith, John, and Eörs Szathmáry. The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origins of
Highlight (green) – Location 847
Spier, Fred. The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996.
Highlight (green) – Location 878
Part I: The Inanimate Universe
Highlight (green) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 907
This is very much how modern nuclear physics views the idea of a vacuum: it is empty but can nevertheless have shape and structure, and (as has been proved in experiments with particle accelerators) “things” and “energies” can pop out of the emptiness.
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 923
Popol Vuh, or “Council Book,” a sixteenth-century Mayan manuscript,
Highlight (green) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 927
Dr. Lightfoot from Cambridge “proved” that God had created humans at exactly 9:00 AM on 23 October 4004 BCE.13
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 992
The particles that did find a partner were transformed into pure energy,
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 1088
Perhaps this is where dark matter and energy are hiding?
As an anonymous wit is supposed to have put it: “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas which, given enough time, changes into people.”25
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 1131
The idea that form and matter are different expressions of the same underlying essence was proposed by the Italian Giordano Bruno as early as 1584, in a book called Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One.
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 1134
Eric Chaisson’s Cosmic Evolution (2001) is an attempt to think through the meaning of order and entropy at many different scales, from stars to microbes,
Highlight (green) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 1394
The second law of thermodynamics ensures that all complex entities will eventually die; but the simpler the structure, the better its survival chances, which is why stars live so much longer than humans
Highlight (yellow) – 2. Origins of the Galaxies and Stars: The Beginnings of Complexity > Location 1521
Even in the densest part of the galaxy, the disk, regions of empty space normally contain only about one atom in each cubic centimeter. But in the earth’s atmosphere, there may be 25 billion billion molecules in the same space.15 And pouring though this matter is the energy emitted every second by the Sun. In other words, human history has taken place in a pocket of the universe that is dense in matter and packed with energy. It is the extraordinary richness and complexity of this environment that made life possible.
Highlight (yellow) – 2. Origins of the Galaxies and Stars: The Beginnings of Complexity > Location 1755
A Danish scientist, Nicholas Steno, first argued that fossils were the remains of organisms that had once lived on earth.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 1991
Charles Lyell first stated clearly what came to be known as the principle of uniformitarianism.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 1999
As the English philosopher Francis Bacon pointed out in 1620, it was easy to see from these maps that the continents looked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This similarity was most striking when the west coast of Africa was matched up with the east coast of South America.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2016
The idea that the continents really had drifted apart was given a thorough scientific basis in a book called The Origin of Continents and Oceans, written in 1915 by a German geographer, Alfred Wegener.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2020
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2024
uppermost layer of the earth (the lithosphere) consists of a number of rigid plates, like a cracked eggshell. There are eight large plates and seven smaller ones, as well as smaller slivers of material.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2071
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2072
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2109
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2109
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2110
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2110
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2113
Part II: Life On Earth
“The unfolding of events in the life cycle of an organism exhibits an admirable regularity and orderliness, unrivalled by anything we meet with in inanimate matter.”
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2158
In Schrödinger’s famous phrase, each living organism seems to have an astonishing capacity for “continually sucking orderliness from its environment.”
Highlight (blue) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2166
Unlike stars or crystals, which are general, all-purpose antientropy machines, …
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2180
Think of homoestasis vs longevity
Darwin rarely used the term evolution, perhaps because it seems to imply some sort of mystical force that drives biological change in particular directions and thus would contradict his own view of biological change as a more open-ended process.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2240
Herbert Spencer, who did the most to popularize the term,
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2242
Highlight (orange) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2297
Erasmus Darwin, suggested that species evolved so as to adapt better to their environments.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2315
In a book first published in 1809, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested a possible mechanism. Perhaps minor changes acquired during a creature’s lifetime could somehow be passed on to its descendants.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2317
Time we spend in the gym does not guarantee that our children will be fit.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2323
Though epigenitics may be at work; see the studies of weight of self vs peers from c. 2010
Evolution works in fits and starts, according to the modern theory of “punctuated evolution,’ which was proposed by Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2481
1920s by Alexander Oparin and J. B. S. Haldane, uses the basic ideas of evolutionary theory to explain not just the evolution of life on earth but also its initial appearance.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2512
But precisely how chemical evolution generated the first living organisms remains unclear. To understand these difficulties, we must break the problem into several levels. First, we need to explain how the basic raw materials of life were created: the chemical level. Second, we need to explain how these simple organic materials were assembled into more complex structures. Finally, we need to explain the origins of the precise mechanisms of reproduction encoded in the DNA that is present in all living organisms today. At present, we have reasonably good answers to the first question; we have plausible answers to the second question; and we are still puzzled by the third question.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2519
Harold Urey and his graduate student, Stanley Miller.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2537
Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe have argued that Earth was seeded with life from outside. This theory is known as Panspermia.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2572
A. G. Cairns-Smith has suggested that in shallow water, tiny crystals of clay may have provided a template for the formation of more complex molecules.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2590
Humans do not have the 60,000 to 80,000 genes we once believed were necessary to construct us but half that number, about 30,000. Roundworms have two-thirds as many genes as us (ca. 19,000), and fruit flies just under half (ca. 13,000); even Escherichia coli, a bacterium that inhabits our gut, may have as many as 4,000 genes. So, though constructing large organisms is tougher than constructing small organisms, the difference is not as great as we once imagined.
Highlight (yellow) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 2782
It would seem that we’re not really becoming that more complex from a relative perspective here. What is the next major jump on the hockey stick?
As Margulis and Sagan put it: “For the macrocosmic size, energy, and complex bodies we enjoy, we trade genetic flexibility.”
Highlight (blue) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 2867
The first extensive fossil evidence of multicellular organisms dates from the Ediacaran era, ca. 590 million years ago. But the fossil record of multicellular organisms really becomes abundant during the Cambrian era, from ca. 570 million years ago.
Highlight (yellow) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 3032
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel suggested that all single-celled organisms be classified within a separate kingdom of Protista. Then, in the 1930s, biologists realized that there was a fundamental difference between cells with nuclei and those without. As a result, they began to divide all organisms into two distinct kingdoms, the Prokaryota (organisms whose cells had no nuclei) and the Eukaroyta (organisms whose cells had nuclei). In some systems, the Eukaryota also include all multicellular organisms. In the second half of the twentieth century, powerful arguments emerged for the creation of separate kingdoms for fungi and for viruses (which are so simplified that they cannot even reproduce without hijacking the metabolic systems of other organisms). In the 1990s, Carl Woese proposed a new large classification to distinguish between the archaea and other forms of bacteria. Like all prokaryotes, archaea do not have nuclei; but unlike other prokaryotes they take in energy neither from sunlight nor from oxygen but from other chemicals.
Highlight (yellow) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 3057
Highlight (orange) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 3188
John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry’s The Origins of Life (1999) is a history of life on Earth, constructed around the central idea of the evolution of complexity.
Highlight (green) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 3367
Part III: Early Human History: Many Worlds
Net primary productivity (NPP) is that portion of energy from sunlight that enters the food chain through photosynthesis and is turned into plant material.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3418
This means that the impact of human history will be visible on scales of at least a billion years.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3443
new ways of extracting resources from their environments.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3478
We have seen that the emergence of new forms of complexity always involves the creation of large structures within which previously independent entities are locked into new forms of interdependence and new rules of cooperation.7 Following this hint, we should expect to find that the transition to human history is primarily marked not by a change in the nature of humans as individuals but rather by a change in the way individuals relate to each other.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3482
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3512
In an article first published in 1967, two biochemists working in the United States, Vincent Sarich and Alan Wilson, argued that much genetic change is subject to similar rules.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3589
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3640
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3690
another possible candidate for the oldest hominine, Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba,
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3692
Highlight (orange) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3792
It is possible that tool use evolved through a process known as Baldwinian adaptation (named after the nineteenth-century American psychologist who first described it systematically). This is a form of evolutionary change that appears to combine Darwinian and cultural elements, because behavioral changes lead to changes in an animal’s lifeways, thereby creating new selective pressures that lead, over time, to genetic changes.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3814
the so-called Levallois or Mousterian tools.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3905
Highlight (orange) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3945
Roger Lewin’s Human Evolution (4th ed., 1999)
Highlight (green) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3985
Steven Mithen has proposed that a number of once discrete brain modules, some of which may have been present in the earliest hominines, merged quite suddenly—perhaps within the last hundred thousand years—in a sort of linguistic “big bang.”
Highlight (yellow) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4025
The Symbolic Species, Terrence Deacon
Highlight (green) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4033
Two factors stand out: the volume and variety of the information being pooled, and the efficiency and speed with which information is shared.
Highlight (yellow) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4257
In a deliberately provocative essay published in 1972, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins describes the world of the Stone Age as “the original affluent society.”
Highlight (yellow) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4323
In his simple but influential model of social structures, Eric Wolf has suggested that “kin-ordered” societies constitute a major type of human community, one that survives in many different forms even in the modern world.26
Highlight (green) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4364
Australian archaeologist Rhys Jones referred to such techniques as “fire stick farming.”39 Fire stick “farmers” deliberately set fire to bushland in regular cycles. In part, their aim was to prevent buildups of combustible material that could lead to hotter and more dangerous fires. But by clearing away underbrush, fire stick farming also encouraged the growth of new plants that, in turn, attracted browsers that could be hunted. Recent research suggests that such techniques may have been used as early as 45,000 years ago.40
Highlight (yellow) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4486
Part IV: The Holocene: Few Worlds
All of recorded human history has taken place within the Holocene interglacial.
Highlight (yellow) – 8. Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture > Location 4768
Highlight (orange) – 8. Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture > Location 4860
Highlight (orange) – 8. Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture > Location 4969
The Trap of Sedentism
Highlight (yellow) – 8. Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture > Location 5240
In fact, most of human history (chronologically speaking) has taken place in communities quite innocent of state power. Even in the villages of the early agrarian era, for most people, most of the time, the important relationships were personal, local, and fairly egalitarian. Most households were self-sufficient, and people dealt with each other as people rather than as the representatives of institutions.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5442
But exploitation, like symbiosis, is never simple or unambiguous. Like predation in the nonhuman world, it can take more or less brutal forms. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan observe, “In the long run, the most vicious predators, like the most dread disease-causing microbes, bring about their own ruin by killing their victims. Restrained predation—the attack that doesn’t quite kill or does kill only slowly—is a recurring theme in evolution.”
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5525
irrigation could raise agricultural productivity decisively, which is why irrigation has been one of the most revolutionary of all technological innovations.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5674
But population growth itself counts as a form of intensification, for in the era before fossil fuels, the energy resources available to human societies came mostly from human or animal muscle power.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5702
Inequality is what all top-down theories of state formation predict.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5730
as the sociologist Émile Durkheim first suggested, our thinking about the way the universe works often mirrors the way our own societies work.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5756
But most were used as sources of stored energy for their owners: where human labor power was as important a source of energy as oil is today, controlling energy meant controlling people. To make slaves more amenable to control, they were often separated at birth from their families. And, like domestic animals, many were deliberately kept in a state of infantile dependence that inflicted a sort of psychic amputation on them—they remained like children, and their helplessness made them easier to control. Both animal and human slaves could be controlled best if kept economically and psychically dependent on their owners.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5797
Highlight (orange) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6004
Outside the cities, they usually had little authority over the more localized forms of violence used to collect taxes, prosecute offenders or deal with banditry, or right local injustices. These powers were exercised by local elites or kinship groups. For most individuals, the righting of wrongs remained the duty of the household or kin group, which might seek the support of local patrons or officials.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6032
Sounds like modern day Muslim middle eastern practice now…
Wolf calls “tributes.” This is justification for regarding societies with states as an entirely new type of social structure. Wolf treats the emergence of what he calls “tribute-taking” societies as a major transformation in the lifeways and the organization of human societies.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6127
They include the emergence of dense populations, which generated a complex division of labor that posed new organizational problems, led to increased need for conflict resolution and to more frequent warfare, and encouraged the building of large monumental buildings as well as the creation of some form of writing.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6136
The demographic dynamism introduced into human history by agriculture ensured that sooner or later, humans, like termites, would face the novel challenge of living in dense communities of their own species. For all the local differences, the solutions humans found in different parts of the world turned out to be remarkably similar to each other—and also strikingly similar to those found by termites and other social insects.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6173
Marvin Harris’s classic essay, “The Origin of Pristine States” (1978).
Highlight (green) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6190
we can think of four main types of societies in this era: three—foragers, independent farmers, and pastoralists—lack states; one—agrarian civilizations—has states.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6226
World historians have become increasingly sensitive to the importance of large systems of interaction, and have often analyzed them using the notion of world-systems. Immanuel Wallerstein, the originator of such theories, argued that particularly in the modern era, it was necessary to analyze not just particular nations or civilizations, but rather the larger networks of power and commerce in which they were entangled, because these networks explained features that could not be explained solely from the internal history of particular regions. Wallerstein called these networks “world-systems,” even though they did not literally embrace the entire world, on the grounds that in many regards they functioned as separate worlds.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6354
Centers of gravity gave structure and shape to large networks of exchange, while hub regions were more lightweight and were more easily transformed by the exchanges that swept through them. So it was often in hub regions that significant innovations first became important because here was where they could have the greatest impact, while the mass and momentum of centers of gravity ensured that those regions normally changed more slowly.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6421
During the reign of Sargon of Akkad (who ruled from ca. 2350 BCE for ca. 50 years), we have the first evidence for a new stage in state formation: the appearance of a state controlling several different city-states and their hinterlands.14
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6475
Highlight (orange) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6644
Rein Taagepera has tried to measure the areas ruled by “imperial systems” of Afro-Eurasia at different dates.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6694
three other factors shaped the pace and nature of innovation in this period: population growth, the expanding activity of states, and increasing commercialization and urbanization.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6721
Scale as a Source of Innovation
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6728
“the respiration of a social structure.”
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6868
One reason for their immense influence was the overwhelming importance of the agrarian sector. Where most forms of production relied on organic materials and energy sources, agricultural output set limits to the production not just of foodstuffs but also of clothing, housing, energy, productive implements, and even parchment and paper.33 Because agriculture was the main motor of economic growth in the agrarian era, rates of innovation in agriculture dominated medium-term economic, political, and even cultural cycles.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6869
States as Sources of Accumulation
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6998
The most stable states and the wisest rulers protected the productive base of their societies by taxing lightly, maintaining basic infrastructure, upholding law and order, and encouraging growth in rural populations and agricultural output.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7063
Thus, an eleventh-century CE Muslim prince from Tabaristan wrote in a book for his son, “Make it your constant endeavor to improve cultivation and to govern well; for understand this truth: the kingdom can be held by the army, and the army by gold; and gold is acquired through agricultural development and agricultural development through justice and equity. Therefore be just and equitable.”50
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7068
Powerful states spent freely on large prestige projects, including cities such as the Achaemenid capital, Persepolis. Such projects were designed to overawe subjects and rivals, but they also provided employment and attracted merchants and artisans.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7086
In Muscovite history, the reign of Ivan the Terrible offers a horrifying example of the dangers of excessive predation.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7113
First, elites in tribute-taking societies had to be specialists in coercion and management rather than in production.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7118
Stable and long-lived polities such as that of China thrived in part because they were rich enough and durable enough to maintain predictable and relatively light levels of taxation, which gave peasants a greater stake in productivity-raising innovations.57
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7153
as Joel Mokyr has argued, technological innovation is unlikely to happen quickly where those who work lack wealth, education, and prestige, and those who are wealthy, educated, and have prestige know nothing about productive work.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7157
Exchange, Commerce, and Urbanization
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7165
Thus urbanization itself dampened population growth, and it did so most decisively when cities grew fastest.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7289
Though tributary states normally tolerated and sometimes encouraged commerce, their predatory methods and willingness to resort to force were ever-present threats to the freedoms needed for trade to flourish. There was therefore a fundamental long-term conflict between the methods of tribute takers and those of merchants; and as long as tributary elites dominated political systems, this conflict limited the productivity-raising potential of commercial activity.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7293
Part V: The Modern Era: One World
Scythians north of the Black Sea more than 2,000 years ago:
But though they are on the whole less violent, personal relations in modern urban communities also lack the intimacy and continuity of those in most traditional societies. Increasingly, they are casual, anonymous, and fleeting. These changes may help explain the loss of a clear sense of values and meaning in modern lives, a subtle and disorienting alteration in the quality of modern life that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim referred to in the late nineteenth century as “anomie.”
The German sociologist Norbert Elias has argued that these changes have reached deep within our psyches, as modern forms of work and time discipline, enforced through the market, have shaped behavior in interpersonal relations, table manners, and attitudes toward sexuality. He has shown how the “emotional economy” typical in the modern world arises out of a relaxation of external restraints combined with an intensification of internal restraints: “The compulsions arising directly from the threat of weapons and physical force gradually diminish, and . . . those forms of dependency which lead to the regulation of the affects [feelings or emotions] in the form of self-control, gradually increase.”
As Daniel Headrick writes: “Knowledge is both cause and effect of economic growth, and the information industry has been the primary cause of the acceleration of technological change in the past 200 years.”
the very nature of most premodern states suggests that as a general rule, in agrarian civilizations tribute-taking generated more wealth and certainly more power than commercial exchanges. This differential helps us understand what might at first appear puzzling: though commercial networks are as old as agrarian civilization, their impact on rates of innovation has been limited until the past two or three centuries. Why, then, did commercial exchanges suddenly become so much more significant in the modern era? Did they reach some critical threshold?
And what then is the next threshold? For think of what the Internet is doing to the entertainment industry and their reticence to go along with it.
Speaking generally, it is the steepness of this gradient of wealth that accounts for capitalism’s remarkable dynamism, just as the large temperature gradient between the Sun and the space surrounding it drives complex processes on Earth.
is the steepness of the gradient that drives wealth so efficiently through capitalist societies and that helps explain why, paradoxically, modern states have to be so much larger and more complex than the states of the tributary world.
So the onus is on the workers to ensure that their labor is productive enough to find a buyer. In this way, the economic lash can stimulate genuine, even creative, self-discipline, whereas the overseer’s whip can generate no more than grudging conformity.
Well-to-do merchants accumulate goods and redouble their profits, while the less well-to-do sit in their shops and sell. They control the markets and daily enjoy their ease in the cities. They take advantage of the pressing needs of the government to sell at twice the normal price. Their sons do not plough or hoe. Their daughters do not raise silkworms or weave. They have fancy clothing and stuff themselves on millet and meat. They earn fortunes while suffering none of the hardships which the farmers suffer. Their wealth enables them to hobnob with princes and marquises, and to dispose of greater power than the officials.29
This quote about 2nd century BCE China sounds a lot like modern day China.
this process was completed by 1279 after the conquest of South China by the Mongols under Kublai Khan. After reunification, two of the three conditions encouraging states to support commercialization (small size and intense rivalries) vanished, and the third (easy access to rich trading systems) lasted only slightly longer.
wealth. The mercantilist policies of European states in the seventeenth century—such as the Navigation Acts of the English commonwealth, which protected British commerce within British colonies—are good examples of new government attitudes toward commerce and the actions that these changes encouraged. Also illustrating this trend is the proliferation throughout Europe of patent laws, which were pioneered in Venice in the fifteenth century. Governments also began to promote innovation through the founding of scientific societies or the offering of prizes.
Over time, commercialization transformed traditional tributary elites. Such transformation was most likely to occur when demands on elite incomes rose sharply in environments where commercial revenues were available for the taking. The English wool trade offers a classic example, for it tempted landowners to clear the land of tenants and replace them with sheep, particularly in the sixteenth century, when new land became available as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries.
the invention in France of the Jacquard loom, which pioneered the use of digital coding as a form of mechanical control (1801);
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 8951
As early as 1837, the French revolutionary Blanqui used the term industrial revolution
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 8956
For most rural dwellers, these changes were catastrophic.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9024
This is now what is happening in most of the rest of the world now.
The appearance of societies in which most people depended entirely on markets for their subsistence was a new phenomenon, and it gave a tremendous stimulus to commercial production of goods of mass consumption.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9097
The idea that atmospheric pressure was a potential source of mechanical power had a history going back at least to the sixteenth century, and it may have been familiar in China as well as in Europe.23
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9126
In 1718, a new owner, Thomas Lombe, in an early example of planned industrial espionage, stole techniques already in use in Italy to set up an improved factory.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9137
Richard Arkwright’s water frame, James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny, and Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule, a modification of the jenny.24
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9140
Karl Polanyi argues in a classic study of modernity,
Highlight (green) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9336
Where literacy spread, knowledge became more abstract and less personal, and abstract knowledge began to acquire an authority quite independent from the prestige of particular teachers.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9375
In the nineteenth century, beginning in Germany, science itself began to be incorporated into entrepreneurial activity as companies set up laboratories specifically to raise productivity and profits. By the late nineteenth century, scientific research was taking a leading role in processes of innovation that might have simply petered out if they had continued to rely on the technical and practical skills of individual entrepreneurs and artisans.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9389
Think about how this is done now and how much of it is done by universities instead of by industry. Where is his innovation happening in the future?
The modern world is ruled by larger and more impersonal forces, from faceless bureaucracies to abstractions such as “inflation,” or “the rule of law.” Where abstract forces take over the work of coercion from the landlord, the executioner, and the overseer, it is not surprising that there should emerge cosmologies ruled by equally abstract forces.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9395
Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches (1990),
Highlight (green) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9532
Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (rev. ed., 1992), is good on some of the political changes associated with the Industrial Revolution.
Highlight (green) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9533
During the “great depression” of the 1870s, it became apparent for the first time that economic growth could falter because of overproduction as well as underproduction.
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 9700
Over the following decades, it became clear that in a world of steadily increasing productivity, the problem of finding (or creating) markets would shape the rhythms of economic activity much as the problem of insufficient productivity had done in the agrarian era. As a result, the modern era is dominated by cycles of activity with a different (normally a shorter) periodicity, which we know as business cycles.
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 9702
Indeed, lifestyles have changed so greatly that they may be exerting a significant evolutionary impact on human bodies.
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 9715
The tensions and dislocations of the hurricane of change affecting the entire globe will ensure that conflict remains endemic, and modern weaponry will ensure that local conflicts continue to cause great suffering.
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 10017
Lester Brown argues that “while the Agricultural Revolution transformed the earth’s surface, the Industrial Revolution is transforming the earth’s atmosphere.”
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 10049
Part VI: Perspectives On The Future
“With chaos, it is sensitivity to initial conditions that makes the dynamics unpredictable. With emergent properties, it is the general inability of observers to predict the behavior of nonlinear systems from an understanding of their parts and interactions.”
Highlight (yellow) – 15. Futures > Location 10163
it is better than doing nothing at all, just as studying the form at a racetrack is better than tossing a coin. In the long run, you will end up with more money if you study the form.
Highlight (yellow) – 15. Futures > Location 10245
the space technologies envisioned by the Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, which enabled the first human to leave Earth on 12 April 1961 and the first human to land on another heavenly body on 21 July 1969,
Highlight (yellow) – 15. Futures > Location 10468
Appendix 2: Chaos and Order
But the patterns we detect are really there, and their existence is one of the great puzzles of the universe. Why is there order of any kind? And what rules allow the creation and evolution of ordered structures?
Highlight (yellow) – Location 10964
On Earth, the temperature differential between our sun and surrounding space provides the free energy needed to create most forms of complexity, including ourselves; energies created early in the history of our solar system drive the internal heat battery of Earth, which drives plate tectonics. These differentials enable energy to flow, and energy flows make patterns possible. And given enough time, the mere possibility of pattern makes it likely that patterns of many different kinds will eventually appear.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11024
After the first problem—explaining how order of any kind is possible—is addressed, the second problem remains. How did complex entities emerge, and, once they had emerged, how did they sustain themselves long enough to be noticed by us (or to be us)?
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11037
Paradoxically, the tendency toward increasing entropy—the drive toward disorder—may itself be the engine that creates order.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11039
The drive toward disorder seems to create new forms of order, just as the energy of falling water can cause droplets of water to splash upward, or a river’s current can create eddies in which small amounts of water flow against the main current.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11044
Roughly speaking, the more complex a phenomenon is, the denser the energy flows it must juggle and the more likely it is to break down. So we should expect that as entities become more complex, they become less stable, shorter-lived, and rarer. Perhaps even a slight increase in complexity can sharply increase their fragility and, therefore, their scarcity.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11064
What we can do is to describe some of the ways in which complex structures emerge. The fundamental rule seems to be that complexity normally emerges step by step, linking already existing patterns into larger and more complex patterns at different scales.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11072
new rules of construction and change seem to come into play. These are known as emergent properties,
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11076
“Leibig’s Law of the Minimum . . . states that populations will be limited by critical resources (e.g., water) that are in shortest supply” (Allen W. Johnson and Timothy Earle, The Evolution of Human Societies, 2nd ed. [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000], pp. 14–15).
Highlight (green) – Location 11456
articles, “Immunological Time Scale for Hominid Evolution”; it was published in Science, 1 December 1967, pp. 1200–1203.
Highlight (green) – Location 11492
There is a good short survey of theories of growth in J. L. Anderson, Explaining Long-Term Economic Change (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991); and see the survey in Mokyr, The Lever of Riches, chap. 7 (“Understanding Technological Progress”).
Highlight (green) – Location 12288
Guide to highlight colors
Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word Green–Reference to read Blue–Interesting Quote Gray–Typography Problem Red–Example to work through
Editor’s Note: Data relating to reading progress was added to this post on 10/21/16. Data relating to highlights, quotes, and marginalia added on 10/23/16.
In the vein of excellent recent books like William Powell’s Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and others, Dr. Forni covers the ground of how to best deal with the current “age of distraction” in which we live. Even better, however, he makes many of these books obsolete as he uses his phenomenal depth of knowledge of everything from the Greek and Roman schools of thought to Benjamin Franklin and George Washington and then through to Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich) and Dale Carnegie (How To Win Friends and Influence People and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living)and beyond to provide simple and useful examples of how to be a better and clearer thinker and to elucidate how that will make your life a happier one.
Fans of “Getting Things Done” (GTD) will appreciate some of the underlying philosophy, but will love how it extends those concepts to create a truer sense of happiness in their daily lives.
When I initially approached the book–as an avowed addict of the fast-paced flow of information from both the internet and television–I was daunted at the mere ideas that the book portended. But again Dr. Forni breaks the proverbial mountain into a practical mole-hill. He divides things into simple and understandable chunks, but also provides the necessary motivation along with simple examples of how to carry out this wonderful philosophy. In the short time since I’ve read the book, I’ve been able to more easily put down my “crack-berry” smart-phone and focus more on what I’m doing and getting the best out of life.
Fans of his previous work who have “chosen civility”, will also appreciate how he ties in the concepts of civility and further extends them to the concept of thoughtfulness. The same way he broke down the concept of being civil and created simple, executable ways of changing your daily behavior, he does so with thinking while simultaneously removing the implied modern-day stigma of being a “thinking” person.
In short, this is the book that I wish I had been given before I started high school or even before I started college. I’ll desperately miss all the time I’ve had without this book, but I’ll definitely be living a better life now that it’s here. One thing is certain: everyone I care about will be getting a copy for the holidays this year!
Information Theory and Evolution
Non-fiction, Popular Science
January 1, 2003
This highly interdisciplinary book discusses the phenomenon of life, including its origin and evolution (and also human cultural evolution), against the background of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Among the central themes is the seeming contradiction between the second law of thermodynamics and the high degree of order and complexity produced by living systems. This paradox has its resolution in the information content of the Gibbs free energy that enters the biosphere from outside sources, as the author shows. The role of information in human cultural evolution is another focus of the book. One of the final chapters discusses the merging of information technology and biotechnology into a new discipline — bio-information technology.
This is a fantastic book which, for the majority of people, I’d give a five star review. For my own purposes, however, I was expecting far more on the theoretical side of information theory and statistical mechanics as applied to microbiology that it didn’t live up to, so I’m giving it three stars from a purely personal perspective.
I do wish that someone had placed it in my hands and forced me to read it when I was a freshman in college entering the study of biomedical and electrical engineering. It is far more an impressive book at this level and for those in the general public who are interested in the general history of science and philosophy of the topics. The general reader may be somewhat scared by a small amount of mathematics in chapter 4, but there is really no loss of continuity by skimming through most of it. For those looking for a bit more rigor, Avery provides some additional details in appendix A, but for the specialist, the presentation is heavily lacking.
The book opens with a facile but acceptable overview of the history of the development for the theory of evolution whereas most other texts would simply begin with Darwin’s work and completely skip the important philosophical and scientific contributions of Aristotle, Averroes, Condorcet, Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, or the debates between Cuvier and St. Hilaire.
For me, the meat of the book was chapters 3-5 and appendix A which collectively covered molecular biology, evolution, statistical mechanics, and a bit of information theory, albeit from a very big picture point of view. Unfortunately the rigor of the presentation and the underlying mathematics were skimmed over all too quickly to accomplish what I had hoped to gain from the text. On the other hand, the individual sections of “suggestions for further reading” throughout the book seem well researched and offer an acceptable launching pad for delving into topics in places where they may be covered more thoroughly.
The final several chapters become a bit more of an overview of philosophy surrounding cultural evolution and information technology which are much better covered and discussed in James Gleick’s recent book The Information.
Overall, Avery has a well laid out outline of the broad array of subjects and covers it all fairly well in an easy to read and engaging style.
John Battelle recently posted a review of James Gleick’s last bookThe Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. It reminds me that I find it almost laughable when the vast majority of the technology press and the digiterati bloviate about their beats when at its roots, they know almost nothing about how technology truly works or the mathematical or theoretical underpinnings of what is happening — and even worse that they don’t seem to really care.
I’ve seen hundreds of reviews and thousands of mentions of Steven Levy’s bookIn the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives in the past few months, — in fact, Battelle reviewed it just before Gleick’s book — but I’ve seen few, if any, of Gleick’s book which I honestly think is a much more worthwhile read about what is going on in the world and has farther reaching implications about where we are headed.
I’ll give a BIG tip my hat to John for his efforts to have read Gleick and post his commentary and to continue to push the boundary further as he invites Gleick to speak at Web 2.0 Summit in the fall. I hope his efforts will bring the topic to the much larger tech community. I further hope he and others might take the time to read Claude Shannon’s original paper [.pdf download], and if he’s further interested in the concept of thermodynamic entropy, I can recommend Andre Thess’s text The Entropy Principle: Thermodynamics for the Unsatisfied, which I’ve recently discovered and think does a good (and logically) consistent job of defining the concept at a level accessible to the average public.
“The Information,” by James Gleick, is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.
This book is assuredly going to have to skip up to the top of my current reading list.
“The Information” is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. “The Information” is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.
In this relaxed setting, take the time to differentiate among the Brownian (motion), Bodleian (library) and Boolean (logic) while following Mr. Gleick’s version of what Einstein called “spukhafte Fernwirkung,” or “spooky action at a distance.” Einstein wasn’t precise about what this meant, and Mr. Gleick isn’t always precise either. His ambitions for this book are diffuse and far flung, to the point where providing a thumbnail description of “The Information” is impossible.
So this book’s prologue is its most slippery section. It does not exactly outline a unifying thesis. Instead it hints at the amalgam of logic, philosophy, linguistics, research, appraisal and anecdotal wisdom that will follow. If Mr. Gleick has one overriding goal it is to provide an animated history of scientific progress, specifically the progress of the technology that allows information to be recorded, transmitted and analyzed. This study’s range extends from communication by drumbeat to cognitive assault by e-mail.
As an illustration of Mr. Gleick’s versatility, consider what he has to say about the telegraph. He describes the mechanical key that made telegraphic transmission possible; the compression of language that this new medium encouraged; that it literally was a medium, a midway point between fully verbal messages and coded ones; the damaging effect its forced brevity had on civility; the confusion it created as to what a message actually was (could a mother send her son a dish of sauerkraut?) and the new conceptual thinking that it helped implement. The weather, which had been understood on a place-by-place basis, was suddenly much more than a collection of local events.
Beyond all this Mr. Gleick’s telegraph chapter, titled “A Nervous System for the Earth,” finds time to consider the kind of binary code that began to make sense in the telegraph era. It examines the way letters came to treated like numbers, the way systems of ciphers emerged. It cites the various uses to which ciphers might be put by businessmen, governments or fiction writers (Lewis Carroll, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe). Most of all it shows how this phase of communication anticipated the immense complexities of our own information age.
Although “The Information” unfolds in a roughly chronological way, Mr. Gleick is no slave to linearity. He freely embarks on colorful digressions. Some are included just for the sake of introducing the great eccentrics whose seemingly marginal inventions would prove to be prophetic. Like Richard Holmes’s “Age of Wonder” this book invests scientists with big, eccentric personalities. Augusta Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, may have been spectacularly arrogant about what she called “my immense reasoning faculties,” claiming that her brain was “something more than merely mortal.” But her contribution to the writing of algorithms can, in the right geeky circles, be mentioned in the same breath as her father’s contribution to poetry.
The segments of “The Information” vary in levels of difficulty. Grappling with entropy, randomness and quantum teleportation is the price of enjoying Mr. Gleick’s simple, entertaining riffs on the Oxford English Dictionary’s methodology, which has yielded 30-odd spellings of “mackerel” and an enchantingly tongue-tied definition of “bada-bing” and on the cyber-battles waged via Wikipedia. (As he notes, there are people who have bothered to fight over Wikipedia’s use of the word “cute” to accompany a picture of a young polar bear.) That Amazon boasts of being able to download a book called “Data Smog” in less than a minute does not escape his keen sense of the absurd.
As it traces our route to information overload, “The Information” pays tribute to the places that made it possible. He cites and honors the great cogitation hives of yore. In addition to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., the Mount Rushmore of theoretical science, he acknowledges the achievements of corporate facilities like Bell Labs and I.B.M.’s Watson Research Center in the halcyon days when many innovations had not found practical applications and progress was its own reward.
“The Information” also lauds the heroics of mathematicians, physicists and computer pioneers like Claude Shannon, who is revered in the computer-science realm for his information theory but not yet treated as a subject for full-length, mainstream biography. Mr. Shannon’s interest in circuitry using “if … then” choices conducting arithmetic in a binary system had novelty when he began formulating his thoughts in 1937. “Here in a master’s thesis by a research assistant,” Mr. Gleick writes, “was the essence of the computer revolution yet to come.”
Among its many other virtues “The Information” has the rare capacity to work as a time machine. It goes back much further than Shannon’s breakthroughs. And with each step backward Mr. Gleick must erase what his readers already know. He casts new light on the verbal flourishes of the Greek poetry that preceded the written word: these turns of phrase could be as useful for their mnemonic power as for their art. He explains why the Greeks arranged things in terms of events, not categories; how one Babylonian text that ends with “this is the procedure” is essentially an algorithm; and why the telephone and the skyscraper go hand in hand. Once the telephone eliminated the need for hand-delivered messages, the sky was the limit.
In the opinion of “The Information” the world of information still has room for expansion. We may be drowning in spam, but the sky’s still the limit today.
Information theory in biology by Henry Quastler, Editor. 1953. 273 pp. Urbana: University of Illinois Press
There are two kinds of scientific books worth reading. One is the monograph or treatise type, in which a more or less large field of science is presented in a systematic way, and in the
form of a product as finished as possible at the given time. This kind of book may be considered a source of knowledge then available. The other type of book may present a collection of
chapters or individual articles which do not claim to be a complete and systematic treatment of the subject; however the reader not only finds interesting ideas there, but the reading as
such suggests new ideas. Such books are useful. For, although a rough and unfinished idea per se does not even remotely have the value of a well-elaborated scientific study, yet no elaborate
study, no important theory, can be developed without first having a few rough ideas.
The book under consideration definitely belongs to the second category: it is a collection of essays. As the editor states in the Introduction (p. 2) : "The papers in this volume are of a very
different degree of maturity. They range from authoritative reviews of well-known facts to hesitant and tentative formulations of embryonic ideas." He further states (p. 3): "We are
aware of the fact that this volume is largely exploratory."
If the above is to be considered as a shortcoming, then the reviewer does not need to dwell on it, because the editor, and undoubtedly the authors, are fully aware of it, and duly warn
the reader. If we evaluate the book from the point of view of how many ideas it suggests to the reader, then, at least so far as this reviewer is concerned, it must be considered a great success.
This is certainly worth the read for the high qualities of its translation and vocabulary. There are lots of great aphorisms and brilliant bits of advice. Some of the parts about patriotism and information about things like picking a wife are anachronistically funny to read 100+ years after they were written.